Seven questions about C.S. Lewis with Alister McGrath
Fifty years ago, Nov. 22, 1963, 20th century author and English scholar C.S. Lewis died. Five decades later, his influence continues to grow. Towers editor Aaron Cline Hanbury asks Alister McGrath, theologian, intellectual historian and apologist at King’s College London, about the legacy of Lewis and his new books, C.S. Lewis — A Life and The Intellectual World of C.S. Lewis.
1. Why, 50 years after his death, are we still talking about C.S. Lewis?
AM: Because he says some very good things, and says them very well. Lewis offers his reader an intelligent and winsome Christian orthodoxy, which has helped some to come to faith, and others to come to a deeper faith. He’s helped me a lot, especially in my apologetic ministry.
2. Evangelicals seems to be Lewis’ most enthusiastic readers, yet he himself was not an evangelical. How should evangelicals approach Lewis critically while learning from him?
AM: Lewis wasn’t an evangelical, and has quite a weak view of the authority and place of Scripture. But what he offers evangelicals is a richer vision of Christianity, which adds to their biblical foundations. Lewis deepens a biblical faith, without diluting it. There are many points at which evangelicals will rightly want to raise issues with Lewis — for example, on the authority of Scripture. We can be critical of Lewis, and still be helped by him. When giving a lecture in London recently, I quipped that what evangelicals really need is a mixture of John Stott and C. S. Lewis — Stott’s deep rooting in the Bible and determination to engage secular culture, and Lewis’ rich vision of the Christian faith as something that enriches both the mind and the imagination.
3. What sparked your own interest in Lewis?
AM: I began reading Lewis after my own conversion back in 1971. Lewis didn’t help me come to faith. But friends at Oxford told me he might be useful in deepening my faith, and helping me to think things through. They were right! I started reading Lewis in 1974. In fact, I still have some of the original copies of his works that I bought back then. And I never stopped reading him. Somehow, there’s always more to discover.
4. In your recent book, C.S. Lewis — A Life, you address certain common assumptions about Lewis (I’m thinking specifically about your treatment of Lewis’ conversion experience). What in your research surprised you the most?
AM: It was great researching this book. I read everything that Lewis wrote in chronological order and found that I had missed a lot from previous readings! I think my proposal for a redating of Lewis’ conversion from 1929 to 1930 may be the most important aspect of the book. But what surprised me most was how bad his relationship with his father was. Although I realize that Lewis wasn’t a Christian at this time, I found myself really quite uncomfortable with the way Lewis treated his father. I think Lewis eventually came to feel the same way himself. One of his later letters expressed his regret for his attitude toward his father.
5. Lewis’ writings took many forms in a wide variety of genres and outlets. How did Lewis think about the task of and impetus for writing?
AM: That’s a great question. Lewis saw writing as a way of opening up questions. He suggested that a writer was a “set of spectacles,” not a “spectacle.” His point was that we shouldn’t look at a writer, but look through him — in other words, see the world through his eyes, and see if that helps us make sense of things. Lewis wrote the Narnia series partly to help children think about core Christian themes in a very imaginative way, and figure out the difference that these beliefs make to the way in which we think and live. One of Lewis’ big discoveries was that writing stories — like Narnia — captured the imagination of his audiences, and made them want to think about the ideas that these stories embodied.
6. How would you summarize the Lewis canon?
AM: I think there are three main sections in this canon. First, the works of scholarship in English literature, which established Lewis’ reputation as a leading scholar of his age. We don’t read these much today, although they have stood the test of time remarkably well. Then there is Lewis the Christian apologist, who presented the faith in a winsome, engaging and satisfying way. Mere Christianity is still very well regarded, and rightly so. One of the reasons that Lewis was so effective was that he used to be an atheist himself, and knew both what atheists believed, and how to counter their ideas. And then there is Lewis the writer of fiction — supremely Narnia, but also other works, such as The Great Divorce and Till We Have Faces. These remain widely read, and some have
7. Commonly, people are familiar with Lewis, but they haven’t actually read his works. For those people, where do you recommend they begin?
AM: It’s like dipping a toe in the swimming pool, isn’t it? Happily, there are lots of introductions to Lewis, which make this process easier — such as Walter Hooper’s excellent C.S. Lewis: Companion and Guide. I would recommend beginning by reading Lewis in small doses. For example, don’t read all of his Mere Christianity. Take it slowly, and in small doses. One of the best chapters is on “Hope.” It’s a gem. Read it slowly, see the points he is making, and the way he draws you in. Underline the good quotes — there are quite a few of them in this chapter. In my view, his best work is the sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” which he preached at Oxford in June 1941. It repays close study and careful reading. But many would say that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the best place to start, because it is such a great story, and so well told. You might like to read one of the guides to Narnia to help you get more out of it.